Investing in Sacred Space: Five Churches Burn Mortgages
By Patricia Wright, 11th Episcopal District
Almost from the outset of taking on a mortgage, one’s thoughts and attention weigh heavily on the amount of debt that has been incurred, the length of time it will take to complete the payments, and when and if the date of final payment will ever arrive. Mortgage burning day is a day that is imminently coming yet somehow never arrives for a great number of us.
Such was not the case in the Lively Lakeland District. On the afternoon of Sunday, October 15, 2017, in an African Methodist Episcopal church nestled in the quaint community of a place called Lake Wales, Florida, and fittingly named Allen Temple, mortgage burning day became a reality five-fold. The Lively Lakeland District is one of three districts in the West Coast Annual Conference located in the Electrifying Eleventh Episcopal District. It is led by the uniquely charismatic Presiding Elder Jimmy J. Thompson. Under Elder Thompson’s leadership and with his support, the Lakeland District brought to bear not only one mortgage burning celebration but an unprecedented five congregations gathered to memorialize the burning of five mortgages.
This was an occurrence so remarkable that it prompted our presiding prelate, Bishop Adam Jefferson Richardson, Jr. to remark that in his 21 years as bishop he has probably attended at least one mortgage burning annually yet even he had “never experienced the burning of five mortgages at one time. What a significant occasion this was! The churches were New Mt. Zion in Wauchula, where the Rev. Willie Hayes is the pastor; New Bethel in Lakeland, where the Rev. Eddie Lake is the pastor; Allen Temple in Lake Wales, where the Rev. Ella Edwards is the pastor; Greater Mt. Zion in Sebring; and Ivey Chapel in Nocatee, where the Rev. Cynthia Langston is the pastor.
The worship experience was presided over by the Rev. Ronnie Clark, pastor of Hurst Chapel AME Church in Winter Haven, Florida, primarily included participants who were from the Lakeland District. The choir sang songs of praise that delighted our hearts, set our feet to stomping, and our hands to clapping. Greater Mt. Zion’s liturgical dance group, the Divine Dancers, praised the Lord with their interpretive presentation.
The purpose, shared by Eleventh Episcopal District Lay President Patricia Wright, included a word of congratulations on the behalf of the laity from across the Episcopal District. Certainly, the high point of the afternoon was the sermon delivered by Bishop Richardson, entitled, “Investing in Sacred Space.” He declared with assured certainty how a sanctuary is a dwelling place for the Divine’s presence. Bishop Richardson delivered a sermon with a voice so strong and palpable that it appeared to lift the roof’s supporting rafters.
From Exodus 25:8, he lifted three thoughts relative to investing in sacred space. With his first sermonic point, he explained that the primary principle of stewardship is ownership. Remember, everything belongs to God. Secondly, stewardship is about attitude. Finally, he spoke about the symbolic presence of the Lord. The great God of the universe wants to be among us. The presence of the Lord was surely there as a surge of holy electricity permeated the air and hovered for a spell over the assembly.
At the sermon’s conclusion, one by one, Bishop Richardson called for the trustees of each church, who—accompanied by their pastor and stewards—came to the altar. As each church approached the altar, a representative handed the bishop a symbolic document signifying the mortgage had been paid in full. Following the declaration that the mortgage had been canceled and lifted, the bishop proclaimed, “Through your hard work, sacrifice and liberality and by the help of Almighty God the debt of this church has been paid.” The mortgage would then be set to flames.
During the mortgage burning ceremony, a particularly poignant note of praise and deliverance rested over the congregation of Greater Mt. Zion in Sebring. As this church approached the altar, their pastor was physically absent from the assembly. The Rev. Laura White, who started the trek with her church, had been called home to be with the Lord just five months earlier. The evidence that she trod with deliberateness upon the pathway of Greater Mt. Zion was clearly apparent by virtue of her congregation’s presence. Over the course of 10 months, this small and united congregation raised over $80,000 in order to be able to pay off the church’s mortgage and be a celebrant in this unparalleled occasion.
The extraordinary foresight of Elder Thompson, coupled with the steadfast stewardship of committed clergy and laity, is an exemplar of faith with works. In other words, “Serving the Lord will pay off after while.” To God be the glory!
Ms. Patricia Wright is the President of the 11th Episcopal District Lay Organization.